It would seem, would it not, that few barriers of taste remain to be breached on network television or in the paperback press. Can anyone think of a subject -- necrophilia? transsexual nuns? gay amputee fetishism? -- that either medium would consider out of bounds?
Well, say hello to Kathryn L. Burgio, Angelo J. Lucco and K. Lynette Pearce, two doctors and a nurse who tried to market a book of medical advice, reassurance and help for the 10 million Americans afflicted with mostly curable (but nobody knows it) problems of urinary leakage.
Geraldo didn't want them. Oprah didn't want them. Forty-nine publishers didn't want them. Nobody wanted them, it seems, but the scholarly Johns Hopkins University Press ... and the 37,000 people who have sent in $12.95 in the past few days for a copy of "Staying Dry: A Practical Guide to Bladder Control."
Last week, it was mentioned in Ann Landers's column. This week, it's a runaway bestseller.
"We tried to get the book discussed on the Sally Jessy Raphael show," said Doug Armato, the Johns Hopkins press marketing director. "They thought about it and said 'Do you know any movie stars with this problem?' "
But since Monday, he says, orders have been coming in so fast the main problem has been finding enough paper clips to fasten the letters to the checks.
"We had to send out for 20,000," he said.
"We've got 30,000 more books on order and I'm not sure we'll be able to keep up with the demand," he added. "We've never experienced anything quite like this."
Ordinarily the Hopkins Press, oldest university press in the country (founded 1878), isn't exactly pushing its authors for "Good Morning America." Its 140 titles a year tend more to such esoterica as a paperback edition of Latin sexual terms and last month's offerings, "Taxation in Developing Countries" and "The History of Syphilis."
But with "Staying Dry," Armato said, "we thought we had something ... Everyone has seen those ads on television for adult diapers. Procter & Gamble and Parke-Davis don't invest millions of dollars like that unless there's a huge demand out there. Unfortunately the only thing people with this problem ever hear is to get diapers and live with it. They don't realize they can get better."
Even before the book was published last November, however, Armato realized he had a problem. "None of the major book chains would carry it," he says, astonished at the memory. "B. Dalton, Crown, Waldenbooks ... none of them wanted it." And when he approached the networks to book the authors for talk shows -- talk shows that had no problems with call-girl wives and transvestite policemen -- he met rejection city.
"The most frequent reason we heard," he said, "was 'It's too much of a downer.' "
Sales of the first 15,000 printing trickled along a few books at a time, mostly through independent book stores around the country, largely fed, Armato says, by word of mouth. "There's really no other book on the subject, and when people hear about the book, they'll do anything to get it," he said. "We put ads in the New York Times and the National Enquirer, and they brought some response. And we were able to have it discussed on some local television and radio shows. Then we thought about Ann Landers."
The Landers column was receptive. Last Wednesday, a letter recommending "Staying Dry" appeared over the signature of "E.M. in Highland, Calif."
"We had about a month's notice and asked the Ann Landers people what sort of response we could expect. They said possibly 5,000 to 10,000 orders. They said they had received huge responses in the past for free booklets, but many, many fewer when money was involved. We told the bookstores the Landers letter was coming, but they were still skeptical. When we told them what happened they couldn't believe it."
The first wave of response arrived Friday: 1,000 orders. Monday it was 18,000. Tuesday it was 5,000. Yesterday, when 3,000 more arrived, reporters were also calling and suddenly Armato was hearing from the book chains.
"You can't possibly imagine how delighted we are," said author Lucco, an internist and director of the Specialty Hospital at the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Baltimore. "We always sensed the book would really take off if we could just get the word out. We know well of the tremendous need."
He said he, Burgio (now research assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine) and Pearce (a nurse practitioner in private urology practice in Towson) decided to write the book three years ago when they were all at Johns Hopkins. "We were all working in geriatrics," he said, "and incontinence is a major geriatric problem. It causes humiliation and anxiety in many, many people and most have no idea they can be cured, often with no more than the regimen of exercises we recommend in the book."
Though it is usually more serious in older people, he said, it can affect younger people to varying degrees, particularly women in their forties and fifties who have had several children.
Lucco said he sent out letters and a sample chapter of the book to some 50 publishers, but Johns Hopkins Press was the only one that showed any interest. Though Armato says the book is unlikely to make the authors rich, they did get a small advance -- "less than $5,000," he said, and acknowledged that it would be "a reasonable guess" to estimate their individual royalties at about 50 cents a copy.
That, however, could increase. Yesterday New York publishers were calling Armato about mass paperbacks and possible foreign sales. If they're rethinking this thing in New York, just imagine the second guessing in Hollywood.
Is a major TV miniseries in the works?
"Staying Dry" is available through Johns Hopkins University Press, 701 W. 40th St., Baltimore, Md. 21211, for $12.95, which includes postage and handling.